Happy New Year

Photo: Linda Park

The year had been going so well: Jim James and his band, My Morning Jacket, had appeared on Saturday Night Live in May. The next month they released a new album (Evil Urges), sold out Radio City Music Hall in twenty minutes, and landed a milestone gig in rock, headlining Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve, a slot more likely to be filled by, say, Billy Joel—at least to those unfamiliar with the band’s hordes of fans.

Then, in October, came the fall. Literally. “I just fell off the stage [in Iowa],” says James. “I was going to step onto a speaker between the stage and the crowd, and the lights went out. And instead of my foot landing on the speaker, it just went into the air.” The drummer, Patrick Hallahan, mistook the misstep for an intentional moment of spontaneity. “I thought he had jumped out into the crowd, which I had never seen him do. And I thought, holy shit, this is great! I was all proud of him.” A few minutes later, James was being loaded into an ambulance. The rest of the tour was canceled.

He might not be a natural stage-diver, but in an era of highly stylized, highly controlled acts (think The Killers), James and his four bandmates—all from Louisville, Kentucky—are rockers in the seventies mold. A jam band for people who don’t like jam bands, their fan base is culled almost entirely from already legendary live shows rather than album sales (their five studio albums together have sold approximately 750,000 copies); this summer’s appearance at The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival clocked in at four hours, and (just to give you a sense of their range) included covers of the Velvet Underground, Sly & the Family Stone, Erykah Badu, Funkadelic, and Mötley Crüe.

“They’ve grown organically over ten years. Now they’re massive,” says John Moore of The Bowery Presents, which booked the Garden show. “They’ve been called an American Radiohead, which I like because their music is heady too. They can get spacey if they want to get spacey. But it’s more Led Zeppelin meets Pink Floyd getting into a train wreck with The Band. They’re not an overnight sensation. The word I keep wanting to say is ‘real.’ They’re real.”

James founded My Morning Jacket and drives its singularity, which extends to his distinctive, quavering warble, likened kindly to Neil Young and less kindly to Kermit the Frog. It’s haunting however you describe it, but it has never bothered his fans. As Jerry Garcia once said of his own sound: “Not everybody likes licorice. But people who like licorice really, really like licorice.”

During the final hours of 2008, 15,000 lovers of James’s licorice will gather at the Garden, Jacket’s first arena gig ever. It will also be a homecoming for the singer, who relocated to New York City last spring, only to end up back at his parents’ house in Louisville for two months of convalescence after the accident. “It’s been a really turbulent couple of months—just horrific, and definitely one of the worst things that has ever happened to me,” says the soft-spoken James, who has an apartment in Chelsea. Why move here when his band has remained in Louisville? “I wanted to find different ways to see the world, and reinvent myself, and try to wipe the slate clean,” he says. “The pace is a little slower back home,” James adds with some understatement. “I love the unpredictability of the city. I feel like I’m playing some crazy game here—like I’m Pac-Man or something. Even when I’m sleeping I’m there playing the game. Somehow I’m not my normal self. Yet maybe I’m more my normal self than I was before?”

The move has introduced him to a new world of musicians, one of whom called him last August to ask if he’d be part of a Bill Withers tribute concert in Prospect Park. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get to stand onstage with Bill Withers,” says James. “And that experience is a perfect example of the beauty of living in New York.”

Living would be an exaggeration when you’re on the road as much as James and Jacket. It’s a grueling scheduled that led to hospitalization once before. “A couple of years ago we were finishing off our tour for the record Z. I wasn’t treating myself well and I ended up getting pneumonia. The lining around my heart got infected and swelled up. I felt like I was having a heart attack,” he says. Enforced rest has clarified his determination to have a life. “It’s a dangerous thing when your art becomes your work, and it can kind of turn on you and you start to resent it … I put too much on my plate, then get tired and start making bad decisions. Hopefully I won’t get back into that cycle.” (An extracurricular job James agreed to in 2007 was playing the role of the Brass Band Singer in the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There.)

One can only imagine what James’s move to New York will do to Jacket’s supremely eclectic sound, as displayed on Evil Urges (just nominated for a Best Alternative Music Album Grammy, along with Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Beck’s Modern Guilt, Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs, and Gnarls Barkley’s The Odd Couple). In the meantime, there’s the Garden—a celebration not only of the new year but of the band’s return to live performance. “After this huge election, and such a big, crazy year that had so much to do with New York for me, to be tying things to a close at the Garden is such a big deal,” says James, who admits to being nervous about his injury while still promising the usual marathon performance, special guests, and new covers. “It’s one of those transformative nights, because no matter how bad the year has been, I feel like I’ve got a new chance.”

Jim James plays lead, rhythm, and acoustic guitar with My Morning Jacket. James doesn’t just play, he rips it—enough for Rolling Stone to include him on its 2007 “Guitar Gods” list (along with fellow Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel). And Esquire dubbed James Best Songwriter in its 2006 Esky Music Awards. So who does this virtuoso cite as one of his biggest musical influences? The Muppet Show. Fans know this sort of eccentricity is predictable from James, as is the band’s preference for unlikely special guests—like the Boston Pops, which backed Jacket on its David Letterman appearance in 2006.

Happy New Year